NOTE: This story was updated for The Post’s print edition of July 8:
Officers from Prince William County, Manassas City and Manassas Park raided 19 locations and arrested 53 people over three days last month as part of an ongoing battle against heroin and illegal prescription-drug dealing. Nothing unusual there.
But after each arrest, a detective or other officer sat down with the suspects and made this offer: We have a chaplain available right now to take you to a drug treatment center, where counselors are ready and waiting — right now — to get you into the treatment you need. And for a police officer to make that offer — and to have arranged the path from jail to treatment — is groundbreaking, police experts said.
There were six takers, according to Vickie Taylor, a division manager for the Prince William County Community Services Board. Four showed up on the day of their arrest, and two more called and set up appointments after they posted bond, not always an easy task for people charged with selling heroin or Percocet or OxyContin. Even more remarkable, Taylor said, is that everyone who first made contact with her counselors has since showed up for subsequent appointments or treatment.
“These are obviously people who are struggling with major addiction problems,” Taylor said. “Every person said, ‘The police officer encouraged me to get help.’ They were amazed and really grateful for the opportunity. And I think that’s pretty special.”
The concept of police directly offering treatment to drug users and dealers is just emerging in law enforcement as police departments look for new ways to approach the drug problem. In Seattle and Santa Fe, N.M., police take drug users and low-level drug dealers to treatment before their arrests. Police in Collier County, Fla., take people to treatment whom they come across during drug raids but don’t arrest.
But treating the suspects at the same time they’re facing prosecution is a slightly different approach, and “what the Prince William County detectives are doing is cutting edge,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. “It is a sign of the country’s shift in how it sees drug addicts.”
While embracing the opportunity for treatment doesn’t get the defendants a special deal with prosecutors, defense attorneys may later seek to show that their clients are sincere about overcoming addiction.
The idea emerged out of the Prince William narcotics task force, as members watched heroin expand its presence on Northern Virginia’s streets. “What we’re doing is creating a cycle of arrest, release, addiction, arrest,” said Sgt. Matt McCauley of the Prince William police. “We’re continuing to rearrest the same people. Everything about that is bad for resource management. So we needed to address the addiction side.”
McCauley approached Taylor in May and asked if the Community Services Board would stand ready to handle a sudden influx of serious addicts at the end of a series of raids. “His pitch was, ‘We’re not going to arrest our way out of this problem,’ ” Taylor said. The officer told the counselor that the police would make the offer immediately after the arrest, a true rock-bottom moment for drug dealers or users, “and that was the brilliance of the plan,” Taylor said. “We are just delighted to have that partnership with the police.”
After briefing his officers on how to broach the subject with suspects, and giving them brochures to hand over, McCauley arranged for police chaplains to be at each of the booking centers. “That was unique too,” Taylor said. “That made it a neutral, caring person who brought them in.” If the treatment center wasn’t nearby, a police officer would provide transportation as well.
“The chaplains walked in with the people, encouraged them further and introduced them to me.” Taylor said. “I had substance-abuse specialists who were available right at that moment, and they would take them back and explain the services that were available. It was pretty seamless. There was no wait. I told people it’s a big step, having the courage to take the step, and we want to help you.”
Options for drug addicts include outpatient therapy, detoxification, residential treatment and more, and some said they had no idea these even were options, Taylor said. As detectives sat down with the arrested suspects and raised the idea of immediate treatment, “Across the board, there was not a single instance of people saying ‘Nah,’ ” said McCauley. “Everybody was interested, excited about getting plugged in.”
“What they did is nothing short of brilliant,” said John Firman, director of research, programs and professional services with the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “They’re right at the crest of a wave of dealing with over-incarceration and taking an action to help solve an underlying problem.” Firman said police departments nationwide are “in the middle of a systemic look at justice in America,” particularly in looking at options other than incarcerating juveniles and non-violent offenders that create a much higher prospect of recidivism.
What Prince William did “reflects a national movement toward not just smart policing but smart justice,” Firman said.
In addition to the 53 arrests last week, the drug task force made 15 arrests in previous weeks and obtained warrants on 18 more people who were still at large, meaning “Operation Dragon Slayer” had netted 86 people, nearly all on distribution charges. The raids were a follow-up to “Operation Blue Dragon” from last November, which resulted in 40 arrests.
Prince William Police Chief Stephan M. Hudson, a former investigations commander, said it was “imperative that health service providers and law enforcement engage in collaborative efforts to raise awareness and increase treatment opportunities for those plagued by these often deadly addictions.” Hudson added that “the work of service providers across multiple disciplines, along with law enforcement agencies within Prince William County and the cities of Manassas and Manassas Park, is to be commended and hopefully repeated wherever possible.”